This is another in the series of BERA2103 blog posts, the name of the paper being:

Discourse, where is your sting? Exploring the biographies of outstanding female mathematics students

Much political rhetoric in Britain proclaims that success in mathematics is a key to individual success and national prosperity – yet British students appear sceptical. Most drop mathematics as soon as they can, and the minority who do continue with it are mostly boys (DfE, 2012). Girls achieve just as well as boys in GCSE mathematics, but they tend to perceive mathematics as more difficult than boys do, and to be more anxious about their performance in mathematics (Brown, Brown, & Bibby, 2008). In my paper at BERA 2013 I will explore two schools of thought – post-structural feminist theory and Bourdieu’s field and capital – in relation to the problem of gender and mathematics.

Sociologists such as Valerie Walkerdine and more recently Heather Mendick have tackled the question of gender and mathematics using post-structural feminist theory. This approach entails the analysis of discourses about what it means to be female, and discourses about what it means to be ‘good at maths’. Such research illuminates the discursive baggage that sticks to mathematics and makes it unattractive to many students. Nineteenth century discourses of the triumph of reason over superstition depicted reason as the domain of men. More recent discourses in popular culture (especially Hollywood movies like A Beautiful Mind) depict mathematicians as “boring, obsessed with the irrelevant, socially incompetent, male and unsuccessfully heterosexual” (Mendick, 2005, p. 214). This post-structural research portrays a discursively constituted mathematician that few boys and fewer girls want to be. In doing so, it seems to have great explanatory power in terms of gender inequalities and more general patterns of low voluntary participation rates in school mathematics. However, it has less to say about social class inequalities, and about the significant minority of students whose subject choices are not gender-normative.

A second candidate for explaining disengagement with mathematics is Bourdieu’s metaphor of individuals possessing various types and quantities of capital, which may vary in value according to the field in which the capital is deployed. Scholars such as Reay (2002, 2006) have explored the internal conflicts that students can experience between academic success and acting in ways that will be valued by their friends and family. Social class, gender, and ethnicity are all related to the value structures of the social fields that students inhabit. So an alternative (complementary?) explanation of the problem of gendered disengagement with mathematics could be that success in mathematics reaps more social rewards (from friends and family) for boys than for girls.

The study on which my paper is based involved in-depth biographical interviews with six graduate students, four of them women, and all of them outstanding mathematicians in school. I approached the analysis of my interviews with both post-structural discourse theory and Bourdieu’s field and capital as potential explanatory frameworks. From a post-structural perspective it would be easy to expect that these students must have a different picture from less academically successful students of what it means to be good at maths. However, this did not seem to be the case. All participants were aware that mathematics was perceived as a ‘boy subject’, and a rather geeky one at that. These students were different not because they were under the influence of different discourses, but because the discourses had ‘lost their sting’. As one young woman put it, “I was cool in my own head”. When we explored why these students were able to feel good about success in mathematics despite its discursive baggage the discussion tended to come back to their school peer groups and sometimes their families. All of the participants had friends who valued academic success and admired or were envious of the participants’ success in mathematics – in fact one participant referred to the same group of peers as “a bunch of mates” and “academic rivals” in the same sentence. These academically supportive peer groups often had contrasting ‘other’ groups, the “teenage mums”, “jocks”, or “gang kids”. In every case there was a social class distinction between the participants’ own peer groups and the less privileged ‘other’ groups, which the participants perceived as placing less value on academic success. The significance of peer esteem and presence of academically and socially stratified groups can be construed by framing academic success as a type of capital, the value of which depends on the structure students’ social fields.

The participants in this study were rare and spectacularly successful at school, and their stories contrast strongly with many of those in the existing literature on gender and mathematics. My BERA paper will explore the implications of this contrast, and explore the ways in which discourse theories and Bourdieu’s sociological theories can be used in partnership – David Pomeroy